I wondered whether I agreed.
“You know, I’m good at solving puzzles,” I said. “Jigsaws, brainteasers, it doesn’t matter what kind. Sit me down by one of those what’s-wrong-with-this-picture diner place mats and I’m content.”
Vega smiled. “Maybe my real mistake tonight was not taking you out to Chuck E. Cheese.”
“There’s always next time,” I said, smiling back at him. “I really am compulsive about it, though. Guess it’s tied to the same mental circuitry as my clean-freakiness. I can’t help looking for order when it isn’t plain to see. I get very logical and methodical about trying to make things fit together. It’s a challenge I can’t resist . . .”
“And you’re trying to figure out how Orlando’s story jives with what happened at the clinic.”
I struggled with my answer a moment. “That’s the weird part. On the one hand, yes. On the other, I’m having trouble processing it.”
“Logically, you mean?”
“You saw how Orlando reacted when he found out about Dr. Pilsner,” I said, nodding. “You saw him fall apart, same as I did.”
“I’ve seen a lot of guilty people manage to look very innocent,” he said. “But I’m not saying you’re wrong that he was convincing.”
And for that I was grateful.
As we neared the Fog Bell, I was also grateful to see lights on behind the tall, pedimented downstairs windows. It was a good indication that Chloe was home. When she wasn’t, her husband, Oscar, would stalk around the house turning off light switches everywhere but in the back parlor, where he relentlessly practiced his clarinet playing. With the tourist season still a month off, and no guests, Chloe had been out and about a lot—gone so much, in fact, that I’d gotten curious about where she was spending her time. If I hadn’t known her so well, and she was any less the social diva, I might have suspected she was heading out on naughty tête-à-têtes . . . but that just wasn’t Chloe.
Anyway, I wanted to visit with her for a few minutes before heading up to my apartment. I’d had a rough night and knew it would help settle me.
Now Vega eased the Rover to the right, stopped against the curb near the yew hedge edging the inn’s front garden. Then we sat in the SUV’s darkened cab, the heater blowing softly to oust the unseasonable chill of the night.
“So,” he said, shifting around to face me. “You’re home.”
I sat looking at him. “Been some eventful night, huh?”
“In all the wrong ways,” Vega said. “Sky, I’ve waited a long time for our date. And I wish it had turned out differently.”
I gave him one of those combination shrugs and nods. “There’ll be others.”
He smiled. “I hope . . . that is, I didn’t want you to be disappointed.”
His green eyes met my brown ones, held them. I felt my heart swell up into the vicinity of my tonsils.
“I won’t be,” I said, “if you kiss me.”
Vega smiled again. Then he slid over toward my side of the cab, and put his arms around me, and obliged, kissing me long and deeply and probingly as my lips parted against his. And I knew then that if the night
gone differently, I wouldn’t have wanted it to stop there. Not even close to there.
I might mention that it was the first time we kissed like that. The first time we’d kissed at all since we rang in the New Year together in the City Hall bell tower.
I shouldn’t have compared him with Mike. It was terrible of me, I knew.
But as I left the Rover and started toward the front porch, gasping for air, I was thinking Chief Alex did it better.
I’d reached the top of the front porch when I caught a whiff of something unpleasant, to put it very, very mildly. With my stuffed sinuses knocked partly out of commission, it took me a second to identify the nasty smell.
I stood under the porch light, sniffing, my fingers around the doorknob. I didn’t want to believe my nose. Did not. That waft did not belong anywhere near Chloe’s enchanted palace—it was an abominable juxtaposition. But there was no mistaking its trademark foulness. Only one thing in the world could have made it.
My face crinkling in protest, I entered the parlor. As I’d suspected, Chloe had company. She stood in the kitchen near the dishwasher, her beefy guest seated with his back to me at the breakfast table.
“Sky, dear, you’re home from dinner early!” she said, mailing a quick, covert frown over his bald head. “Look who’s stopped by to see us just as I was doing the dishes.”
Bill Drecksel heaved around to face the doorway.
“Hey-ooh, here’s my favorite gal pal!” he said, his walrus mustache flapping over his upper lip like a hairy curtain. “Think spring! I brought ya a special treat to celebrate the season.”
I gaped at him numbly. I’d been staying at the Fog Bell going on eighteen months. In all that time, Drecksel had never set foot in the place. And I would have bet his god-awful offering concealed an ulterior motive for the visit.
I heard the dishwasher go into its drying cycle. Meanwhile, Chloe kept stealing pained glances in my direction. Don’t ask me how, but even making faces, she managed to project a simple grace in her white straight-leg jeans, a green and white-striped long-sleeve pullover blouse, and a necklace of huge black, green, and brown wooden beads. Though we’d never discussed her age, she looked a well-maintained fifty to my thirty-five. She’d looked a well-maintained fifty when we met a decade before. And I had a hunch she would look a well-maintained fifty when I was a doddering octogenarian resident of a retirement home.
Although if anything could put years on Chloe, it was the reeking present that had been plunked in the middle of the kitchen table. Stuffy nose or not, it had instantly clawed its way to the back of my throat.
“C’mon while it’s hot, Sky.” Bill waved me over. “You can’t beat my ring bologna quiche, an’ I walked this one straight over from my diner after bakin’ a fresh batch for the library sale.” He grinned proudly and held up a pie cutter. “Even brought along my own servin’ utensil.”
I looked at him, aghast. Too bad I hadn’t known that before, or I might have recommended Chief Alex hand him a cease-and-desist order. But Drecksel’s Diner was out on the Wing and we’d driven in from the opposite end of town, which explained why we weren’t overcome by the god-awful oven exhaust. The only smell I could imagine being in the same offensive league belonged to Drecksel’s house-blend coffee . . . and even that noxious brew would be a distant second stinkwise.
“I appreciate the offer, Bill,” I said. “Truth is, I’m not too hungry—”
“Hungry, schmungry!” He pulled out a chair to his immediate right. “Just have a slice. You know I use top-quality Amish bologna, right?”
“I do, Bill . . .”
“Made my once-a-year trip out to Pennsylvania Dutch country for it last week, bought almost forty pounds.” He smacked his lips. “Wish I could describe how my car smelled driving back here.”
“I can only imagine,” I said, trying not to retch. “Anyway, Bill, thanks again. But it’d be a shame to waste good food—I’ve got a head cold and my taste buds are shot.”
He sighed with resignation. “Don’t feel you gotta make excuses. I know you gals worry about stupid calories. Trust me, though, some delicacies are worth an exception.”
I stood there at a loss for a reply, but leave it to Chloe to come jumping in to my rescue.
“Bill, you’re a hundred percent right.” She turned the dishwasher off moments into the dry cycle, using one of my efficiency tips. At any other time it would’ve made me smile. “We do have to watch our waistlines, and I ate less than an hour ago. So instead of picking away at the quiche, I think we’ll have two nice, big slices with tomorrow’s morning coffee.”
Drecksel was visibly disappointed.
“Awright, awright,” he said. “You wanna do that, make sure ya warm it up to get the full flavor. And give yourselves plenty of chunks of bologna.”
“I won’t forget.” Chloe shot another quick look over his head. “Now, if I might ask you something unrelated, Sky . . .”
“Go right ahead,” I said thankfully.
“Just as Bill arrived, we heard police sirens at the north end of town—or so it seemed. I know you were up there at Shoko’s Minka in the old mill, and I wonder if you noticed anything wrong.”
My tongue suddenly became a frozen lump in my mouth. Making it twice and counting that it happened since I walked through the door. Chloe and Gail had been friends. But in my eagerness to change the subject, it hadn’t even entered my thick skull that Chloe wouldn’t have heard about the murder yet. No way did I intend to announce it while Hey-ooh Drecksel was around to potentially say something stupid and insensitive.
Chloe looked at me, waiting. I stood rooted near the door in my overcoat, anxiously trying to come up with a decent stall.
This time, amazingly, Bill was the one to dangle a bailout.
“You dolls can talk about that siren later,” he said, patting the empty chair beside him. “Look, Sky, I gotta hurry back to the diner and get my other quiches packed for the spring bake sale. But I wanna mention a business proposition to you before I leave.”
I sat down without taking off my coat. Whatever Bill was thinking, I had a hunch it was the real reason he’d come bearing his putrid gift. And though I didn’t see how any offer he cooked up could possibly interest me, the alternative was to break the terrible news to Chloe in front of him. That was not an option.
Bill had swiveled around in his chair to face me. “Awright, ready?” he said with a huge grin.
I forced myself to nod.
“Tell me if I’m wrong, but you might ’a seen that I finally got some model units for my condo development built.”
I was glad my nose was so plugged up, since it kept me from having to hold it. Bill’s nicey-nice act stank almost as much as the warm quiche on the table. The Getaway Groves condo park was his dream investment, and after a string of set-backs involving some dirty deeds by our former city council president, its first model units had gone up about a month back.
“Bill, the condos are right behind my office trailer,” I said. “How could I miss them? All I have to do is look out the window.”
“Good point. It kinda leads us around backwards to my proposal.”
I waited. Bill grinned but didn’t say anything else. Besides being annoying, it made me impatient.
“Okay,” I said. “What is it?”
“Well, Sky, it’s like this.” He took a deep breath. “If you can see the condos from
window, people in the condos can see the trailer from theirs.”
“Thing is, they ain’t the same and equal. Catch my drift?”
“No,” I said. “Can’t say I do.”
“Then let me put it to you this way,” Bill said. “You, Sky Taylor, lookin’ out at a beautiful new half-million-dollar condo ain’t the same as somebody inside the condo lookin’ out at an old Airstream trailer from when Ike was runnin’ for president. In the first case we’re talkin’ a real pleasure. Somethin’ to soothe the eyes, so to speak. In the second case—no offense—we’re talking an eye
. And I’m kinda afraid that view might put off would-be condo buyers.”
I looked at Bill. Tactlessness I’d expected. And I wasn’t exactly shocked by his ignorance about my restored ’62 Tradewind, a classic beauty of a travel trailer if there ever was one—and something I’d been able to afford only after realizing I needed an office for my expanding business, and deciding that taking out a loan to buy it would be my most economical option. But his sheer gall surprised me, considering that the trailer sat on a plot of land I owned outright, having inherited it from our late mutual friend Abe Monahan. And moreover because, as a pure no-strings favor, I’d given Bill a written dispensation to build closer to my property line than town law ordinarily permitted.
I tried not to get too mad at him. It had been a long and difficult night, and I was afraid I might poke him in his big round belly, or maybe dump his disgusting bologna quiche over his stupid, shiny bald head, if I lost my temper.
“Bill, I have no idea what you’re hinting at,” I said.
“Just that the image I see don’t make sense,” he said, forming a picture frame in front of my face with his thumbs and forefingers. “A high-class city girl like you sitting in some dumpy trailer . . . uh-uh. It’ll never make you happy.”
“And I suppose you know what would?”
“Not what. Where.” Drecksel grinned at me through his finger frame. “Maybe I never told you, but I own the building my diner’s in. Top to bottom. And there’s this room right
the diner on the second floor that I been usin’ for my office.” He pulled his fingertips apart, lowered his hands. “Here’s the deal, sis. You tow that fossil of a trailer to the junkyard, get it outta sight, I’ll let you share the office with me.”
“Let me share it.”
“Rent free. You just cover all the utility bills.”
“It so happens I
“You’ll like havin’ an office over the diner even better,” Bill said. “Listen, I’ll sweeten the pot. I know you’re into cleaning big-time. Well, you can feel free to clean the joint ta your heart’s content. Plus I’ll bring you a cup of coffee every mornin’. A bite for lunch too. Speakin’ of which . . . you know Stu Redman? The Scottish guy who owns that bookstore?”
“I believe Stu comes from New York,” Chloe said. “Isn’t that right, Sky?”
“Definitely,” I said. Stu affected his Sean Connery accent for reasons unknown. “Brooklyn, in fact.”
Bill flapped a dismissive hand.
“Looks like a duck, quacks like a duck,” he said. “Anyway, Stu gave me these bona fide Scottish recipes I’m workin’ into my spring menu. Herrings in oatmeal, fer instance. You can have ’em for breakfast instead ’a muffins.”
I wanted to gag. “Sounds delectable.”
“You bet.” Drecksel was grinning again. “And then for lunch there’s pigeon casserole.”